Kentucky lawmakers should end a haven for abuse by outlawing child marriage

Donna Pollard’s courage and eloquence have made her a heroine of this legislative session.
Donna Pollard’s courage and eloquence have made her a heroine of this legislative session. AP Photo

A courageous survivor and a social media backlash have come to the aid of young Kentuckians who are at risk of being forced into abusive marriages with sexual predators.

A bill in the legislature raising the legal age for marriage to 18 started moving after a weekend of Kentucky-bashing on Facebook and Twitter. The social media backlash was sparked by news that concerns over parental rights had stalled Senate Bill 48.

The Senate Judiciary Committee convened in a special meeting Tuesday and unanimously approved SB 48. On Wednesday, the Senate, by a vote of 34-3, sent it on to the House, where there’s cause for optimism that Kentucky will end a practice that many assumed was limited to rural India or the American past.

In fact, since 2000 in Kentucky, 11,000 minors have married, some as young as 13, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. The numbers are in decline — down to 217 child marriages in 2016, but that’s still 70 of every 1,000 Kentucky marriages.

Only seven percent of those unions are between teens. More than nine out of 10 are between a minor and an adult, including couples who were 13 and 33, 15 and 52 and 17 and 72.

Kentucky law now allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with a parent’s permission and those 15 and younger to marry with a judge’s approval, if the girl is pregnant.

But pregnancy should set off alarms, not wedding bells. Rapists and pedophiles should not be able to use marriage to avoid the consequences of their actions, as the law now enables. Kenton County Clerk Gabrielle Summe told lawmakers that her office had no choice but to issue a marriage license to a teenage girl who spoke no English but cried the whole time she was there.

Thanks to Donna Pollard, a survivor of a child marriage, for so eloquently advocating for protecting such youngsters. Pollard, who enlisted Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, to sponsor the bill, was married at 16 at her abusive mother’s urging to a 31-year-old. Her now ex-spouse had begun having sex with her when she was 14 and a traumatized resident of a treatment center where he was on staff. He soon became violent and she pregnant.

As a minor, unable to lease an apartment, she had to wait until she was 19 to escape. Pollard’s courage and smarts have made her a heroine of this legislative session.

Thanks also to the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that advocates for women, girls and victims of violence and is spearheading a movement in legislatures to end child marriage. Kentucky has the nation’s third highest rate of child marriages, according to the center’s research.

The new law would outlaw marriage for anyone 16 or younger and allow 17-year-olds to marry with approval of parents and a district judge who would consider any history of violence, crime or sexual offenses and also the minor’s maturity and self-sufficiency. Such reviews should ensure that no one is coerced into a marriage, by parents or prospective spouse.

Sen.. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, got it right when she said the current law is an embarrassment that “plays into every negative stereotype” about Kentucky. The House should move quickly to prove one stereotype wrong.